In this age when there are literally dozens of Beethoven symphony recordings from which to choose, it grows ever harder for any conductor, of whatever renown, to offer any new revelations in these colossal works. And the ultra-conservative Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra – one of Germany's oldest orchestras, dating to 1743 – is an unlikely bastion of radical thinking. Yet perhaps it is that very weight of history that has spurred conductor Riccardo Chailly to record a cycle that stands out from the pack.
These recordings of the Symphonies No. 1 and No. 2 were made in 2007 and 2009, respectively, with the Leonore Overture No. 3 and the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus recorded in 2009. They're the latest in a Beethoven tradition that goes back to the composer’s own lifetime, when in 1825 the Leipzig Gewandhaus gave the first-ever performance of the entire symphony cycle. To this day, the Ninth Symphony continues to mark the end of every season at the Gewandhaus. In short, these players have seen it all.
Enter Chailly, a Milan-born maestro who became Leipzig’s chief conductor in 2005. He's known for modernizing familiar repertoire and here he's intent on bringing a new sense of urgency and detail to Beethoven. He sticks faithfully to the composer's implausibly fast metronome markings and the musicians respond with taut, incisive playing. At times the orchestra evokes a period-instrument ensemble, with transparent textures and spare use of vibrato – but with the richer, more polished sound which many listeners still prefer.
Chailly's complete cycle of the Beethoven recordings was previously a WQXR Album of the Week.
Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra
Riccardo Chailly, conductor
Available at Arkivmusic.com